Looking at art with toddlers

Looking at art with toddlers

Finnegan, June E Eyestone

Art in the lives of toddlers is often thought of as first experiences with drawing, painting, and clay. Tactile experiences, such as moving hands through large tubs of rice or bird seed, or play wth’ multi-colored shaving cream, are also thought of as contributing to young children’s aesthetic sensibilities. In fact, children of this age love to explore shape, sound texture, color, and other sensory possibilities using just about anything they can get their hands on. One potential aspect of children’s development through art that is not often thought of, however, is how toddlers might respond to art images, whether original or reproductions, two or three-dimensional. In this paper, I suggest that children’s responses to all are beneficial and that they provide valuable insights into a toddler’s capacity for reflection about the world in –which,he or she ;lives. I also recommend strategies for incorporating art images in a toddler curriculum in a childcare center and for parents or caregivers in the home.

Current national standards for art education recommend that art be taught using a comprehensive approach, although such stated standards include only kindergarten and above (Dobbs, 1998; National Art Education Association [NAEA],1994).State and local standards, however, open include pre-K as well. Comprehensive art education means that art is taught using an integration of art making, aesthetics, art criticism, and art history. These disciplines balance the use of visual language through Making and verbal language and cultural understanding through art criticism, aesthetics, and art history. Comprising these disciplines and methods, art can be integrated into the rest of the curriculum including other arts as well as other subjects (Cornett, 1999; Piazza 1999). Consequently, art is perceived as a language of human expression and is, therefore, essential to growth and learning.

Parallel standards stated by the National Association for the Education of Young Children [NAEYC], (1998) support the use of art images in the toddler curriculum. Specifically, three goals out of seven listed under Standard B7 for toddlers, state:

Teachers provide a variety of developmentally appropriate activities and materials that are selected to emphasize concrete experiential learning and to achieve the following goals:

B7c. Encourage children to think, reason, question, and experiment.

For example, help toddlers’ developing awareness by reflecting their experiences. (p. 71)

B7d. Encourage language and literacy development. For example, respond to toddlers’ attempts at language in supportive ways, such as expanding their utterance and answering their questions, engaging in meaningful conversations about everyday experiences. (p. 72)

B7g. Encourage creative expression, representation, and appreciation for the arts. For example, display interesting things to look at. (p. 74)

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (1998) defines “toddlers” as children between the ages of 13 months and 35 months.

This is a time when most children are developing their most powerful beginning language abilities. Toddlers’ discovery and delight in being able to communicate hold much potential for initiating positive and meaningful experiences with works of art This age period is also a time when children begin to feel more independent and capable of being separate from their parents. Their sense of identity is emerging in profound ways. This is an opportune time to celebrate and cultivate experiences that contribute toward developing this emerging personality. Using art images in the toddler classroom and in the home offers an opportunity for important reflection, expression of language skills as they relate to a child’s everyday life, and creative expression in how a child chooses to respond. In addition, using art images may also provide readiness for learning at the preschool and kindergarten.

The premise of this discussion lies in constructivist learning theory (Hein, 1998). This means, essentially, that children learn to construct meaning based on interactions they experience in their immediate environment. Rather than depending on an external standard of truth, knowledge is understood as a construction comprising what is known and what is experienced. An assumption of constructivist learning theory, therefore, is that in order to learn, the active participation of the learner is required. In the following anecdotes, I explain how one child, my daughter Emma, expressed her understanding of images in her environment through interaction.

One afternoon, when Emma was eighteen months old, she pointed to a framed print on the wall above her dressing table. The image is a reproduction of an etching by Mary Cassatt entitled, Maternal Caress (see Figure 1). The image, dated 1891, is actually 14% inches by 10 inches and is held in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. The reproduction in her room is actual size. Created in soft, warm colors of peach and gray, the print shows a mother seated, holding her naked baby, the baby’s arms around her neck with his or her cheek nestled into the mother’s face.

I asked my daughter to show me the baby and then the mother, which she did. Thinking that she might turn and give me a hug, I asked her what the mother and baby were doing. Emma turned to the print and hugged it with her cheek against the glass! She giggles with delight I believe that she conveyed her understanding of the subject matter as well as her apparent appreciation of it. At 27 months, my daughter continues to engage me in discussions of this piece. One day, we were reflecting on the image and my daughter described the baby’s bare feet. She noted that the baby was not wearing shoes, which launched a full-scale dialogue about all of my daughter’s shoes. Emma actually preferred not to wear shoes and had to make decisions about wearing them whenever she put them on. Maternal Caress continues to be an important part of our daily life because it provides a special opportunity for us to share our time and love together.

My observations of my daughter’s responses to this image are not unlike those of her drawing process. She expresses a strong desire to draw, preferably with a ballpoint pen and white paper. When she does this, she draws deliberately and announces the names and actions of her marks. For instance, one weekend, my daughter, a friend, and I went to the small beach community where my daughter was born. We had a picnic on the beach where aggressive seagulls swooped down and helped themselves to our leftovers when we got up momentarily. They laughed their gull-like mockery and hovered over us waiting for more. It left a decided impression on all of us. Later, we flew a kite, each of us taking turns. Emma was very excited to do this on her own. About a week later, she started to express the events of that day in her drawings (see Figures 2 & 3).

Both my daughter’s response to art and creation of art illustrate how she uses visual stimuli to reflect verbally on things and events that are important to her. They provide an opportunity for us to talk together so that I can learn what she is thinking about, how she expresses herself emotionally, and how I can support her interests, and consequently, her self-esteem. Her uses of narrative and gesture in both her responses to art images as well as in her drawings convey important messages about her life. Her messages are confirmed and validated by an attentive and encouraging response from me.

Constructivist theory allows a place in the curriculum for the way children use narratives in their daily lives, much as my daughter enjoys doing when she looks at art images in her room every day or details her weekends in her drawings. These narratives reveal children’s sense of understanding in how they link one experience to another.

One study, by Zurmuehlen and Kantner (1995), addressed the narrative capabilities of 2-year-olds in relation to their lives, including artmaking. They characterize young children’s narratives as critically reflective, constructed from their experiences. Depending on their age and language capability, children may express their reflections as a simple gesture; a simple declaration of something they see; one question being asked repeatedly, like “What’s that?”; a series of related questions; or a narrative explanation of what they see. These interactions reveal at what level children are learning, what the children are interested in, and their creativity in connecting what they see with what they know.

For example, when I explained my young daughter’s drawings in relation to the repeated imagery and naming of the kite, she was using reflective narrative. This personal and compelling use of dialogue, created during the integrated process of looking, verbalizing, and making, suggests that events in time need to be captured by even very young children. It is a rudimentary beginning of a historical consciousness.

Recommendations for Teaching and Learning

Many toddler programs in childcare centers are not structured curricula, but are rather multisensory and play oriented. Art in a curriculum of this kind usually includes a variety of media, such as painting, clay, and collage. A guiding belief of this discussion is that new ideas for curriculum need to funnel into this existing type of activity. This might mean, for instance, something as simple as displaying a reproduction of a painting with reference to a particular subject matter. This subject matter might relate to children’s experiences, for example their family life, love for music, or a walk in the woods (Walsh, 1993). Children could be asked to respond to the artwork in relation to their experiences. Or, a teacher would simply be receptive to toddlers’ interests in the image, encouraging both the interest and the response. The teacher would not, however, dictate a paragraph of prepared “background information” on the piece. The teacher might, however, read a story to the children and respond to their announcements that they see a relationship between the story and the image. As a result, children will be given an opportunity to see something to which they can bring meaning. The role of the teacher is to choose images that relate to children’s interests, to display them at toddlers’ eye level, and to be supportive of children’s interactions with what they see. Parents or caregivers in the home can provide these experiences in much the same way.

A starting point for choosing images for display is to choose those that might be of interest to children based on what they observe in their immediate environment. Their responses may demonstrate a connection that is relatively concrete in nature. For example, I showed a reproduction of a still life by Cezanne to my daughter and asked her what she saw. She replied enthusiastically “lunch.” However, limiting choices of images in which children might find meaning might be less useful than to suggest that a variety of ideas, places, and things be presented. For example, when she was 34 months, I took Emma to a museum where we focused on a painting by Clementine Hunter called Zinnias in a Pot (Figure 4). The image showed a vase of deep magenta and white flowers on a chartreuse background. I expected Emma to respond to the contrast and intensity of the colors and the beauty of the presentation. When I asked her what she saw, she replied, “Those are the flowers the angels carry in the parade.” A few days later, we returned to the museum to look at the paintings again. Next to Zinnias in a Pot was another painting by Hunter entitled Funeral Procession (Figure 5). While reflecting on the two paintings, I thought maybe Emma’s response arose from her momentary look at “Funeral Procession” before she saw Zinnias in a Pot. I believe this is very possible, although Emma has mentioned angels when looking at art in other contexts when there are no apparent referents as this one. Although I ask her about her responses, she usually announces that she wants to move on after she completes her thought. Other things a child might be looking at or thinking about, or what might be important to the child at a given time, may affect a response more significantly than anything else. Keeping possibilities open for creative reflection may be the most important criterion in how to choose artwork to display in a classroom or in the home.

There are many ways that art images might be presented in the classroom. One way is to put up a reproduction on the wall. As children like to touch what they see, lamination or other protection is recommended. The height should be adjusted so that it is at the children’s eye-level. The image might be placed near a corner where stories are read from a rocking chair or in another area of the room that will invite reflective responses. The director at my daughter’s school put some art reproductions up over the sink. She tells me about the enthusiastic conversations that the children have about the pieces as they wash their hands. Leave the reproductions up over a period of time so that a child can revisit them. Repetition is one important way that children learn. They need to have access to the image so that they can review and inspect the piece over and over again.

Another way that art images can be introduced to young children is by making matching games with small reproductions, such as postcards (Wolf, 1996). My daughter loves to play lottotype games in which she has a game card with images. She likes to shuffle the cards, take one off the top, lay the card backside up on top of the found image and go on to the next one. She also likes to match cards to images that are hanging up in her room.

Art images can also be found in published books designed for young children (Chermayeff & Chermayeff, 1989,1991; Micklethwait, 1993,1994; Voss, 1995). Reproductions showing various objects with which a young child might be familiar are presented next to large-type words labeling these objects. While looking at the objects, toddlers can become interested in other aspects of what they are seeing, and a conversation can begin from a simple looking and finding activity. Children are also introduced to the idea of matching a written word to an object These books can serve as models for books that can be made by parents and teachers as well.

An important connection between a childcare center and the home can be made by providing copies of images used in the curriculum for toddlers that can be sent home to parents. An explanation of how they were discussed or how the child responded to a particular piece that day might accompany the reproduction. The parent would be encouraged to extend the discussion with his or her child, by offering two open-ended questions to ask. If the art image was Maternal Caress, for instance, two questions that might serve as a follow-up might be “What are the mommy and baby doing?” or “Who do you see?” Even recommending that the image be put up at the child’s eye-level within the home and simply waiting for a response might be useful. Encourage parents to converse about the artwork using terms and concepts that are accessible and interesting to their children. In return,

a parent can send a note to school describing an anecdote about the child’s response.


In this article, I have examined needs, potential and actual benefits, and possible methodologies for incorporating art images in the everyday experiences of toddlers. I suggest that this inclusion supports aesthetic and language development and offers a way for a child’s caregiver and the child to build a positive and nurturing relationship. It also provides opportunities for knowing more of what a child is thinking about or interested in, and his or her potential for creative expression. In addition, by suggesting that children’s responses are historical in nature, I propose also that children’s responses to art represent relationships in their lives and should be studied in that context.


This paper is a shortened version of a paper presented at the National Art Education Association Annual Convention in Washington, DC, 1999.


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June E. Eyestone Finnegan is an Associate Professor of art education at Florida State University in Tallahassee. E-mail: jeyeston@mailer.fsu. edu

Copyright National Art Education Association May 2001

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